SEATTLE — Leading by six points with 2:51 left to play, Cal football found itself in an oddly familiar situation.
The Bears had allowed the home team to come back from a three-possession lead for the second week in a row. But as Washington freshman quarterback Jake Browning was beginning to march his team down the field, he hurled a ball into double coverage. As the ball flew, Cal safety Damariay Drew dove and ripped the ball out of the air to pick off Browning and give his team possession with the lead and less than two minutes to play.
At that point, all the Bears had to do was eat up clock. Although the game remained close, Cal (4-0) made the final big play to come away with the victory and win, 30-24, to stay undefeated.
“When it mattered, we were able to settle down make a play, and Demariay sealed the game for us,” said Cal linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
The game did not start as excitingly as it concluded. Against the Huskies’ front seven, quarterback Jared Goff often found himself under duress in the pocket and didn’t have time to hit many of his receivers downfield. It took a while for the Bear Raid to get comfortable, as seen in the offense scoring a touchdown just once in the four trips it took to the red zone in the first half.
“Their (Huskies) defense was the best defense I played in a really long time,” Goff said. “They made plays on the ball.”
Although the offense was missing senior running back Daniel Lasco for the second straight week, sophomore running back Vic Enwere provided a solid performance on the ground in the first 30 minutes, rushing for 77 yards on 14 carries while scoring a touchdown as running lanes began to open up.
On the other side of the ball, the defense began the game by forcing two straight third and longs in the first two series, allowing the Bears to get off the field. The third drive of the game for the Huskies, however, didn’t end as quickly. With junior running back Dwayne Washington finally getting the ball for the first time midway through the first quarter, the explosive tailback needed only five carries for a total of 71 yards to score the Huskies’ first touchdown of the game. He was consistently able to pass Cal’s usually reliable linebackers, as he was the only offensive player to touch the ball on that drive.
Besides that run, however, Cal’s defense had things under control in the first half. Aside from Washington’s monster drive, the Huskies struggled to get their running game going. And without a consistent ground game, Browning was under a lot of pressure in the pocket.
“We rushed the passer incredibly well,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “I thought our defense played lights out. That’s a hard team to defend. (We) created five turnovers, and that was probably the difference in the ball game.”
But Cal senior defensive end Kyle Kragen had a monster game, with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the first half alone. In total, the Bears’ defense forced three turnovers and allowed only 109 total yards in the first 30 minutes. Browning, who was coming off a 368-passing-yard game with three touchdowns against Utah State, had just 50 yards on five completions.
“It feels really good to help the offense out like that,” Kragen said.
With the Bears’ strong defensive effort in the first half, the relatively slow start on offense didn’t have as much of an impact, as Cal maintained a 20-7 lead entering halftime.
In the second half, the Bears’ passing game started to click. With Cal forcing a quick Washington three and out to start the third quarter, the Bears needed just 1:59 and four plays to go 62 yards and score. The drive was highlighted by junior wide receiver Kenny Lawler, who had a deep 52-yard catch and an 8-yard touchdown catch one play later.
“(Goff) can put the ball anywhere,” Lawler said. “It always feels good to have the passing game working. We just came out and executed.”
Washington’s offense responded to Lawler’s touchdown with a score of its own. Huskies defensive back Sidney Jones then returned an Enwere fumble for a 70-yard defensive touchdown to cut the score to 27-21. All of a sudden, Washington was back in the ball game with a quick 14-0 run.
As the Huskies found their rhythm and started to move the ball quickly to tie the game, Washington fumbled the ball in Cal territory. Bears cornerback Darius White was able to recover it and end the offensive threat with just less than 10 minutes left in the game.
After the turnover, the Bears responded with a drive that ate up 5:19 and ended with a field goal to give Cal a 30-21 lead with 5:34 left. On the next drive, Browning needed just 1:29 to advance down the field and set his offense up for the field goal to cut Cal’s lead to 30-24 with 3:57 to play.
With his offensive line struggling and the usually solid receivers dropping easy passes, Goff had difficulties moving the chains and getting the first downs necessary to eat up the clock with the lead. As a result, the game came down to Cal’s defense versus a Washington offense that began to heat up, especially on the last drive. On the first two plays, Browning scrambled out of the pocket for minimal gain and a loss of yardage. But on the third, Drew came up with the game-winning play, and Cal was able to hold on for the win.
“I’m just proud of the guys finishing games the way they are,” Dykes said. “They got a lot of confidence. They believe in a critical time in the ball game, somebody’s going to make a play.”
Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact him at [email protected].